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Syllabic Verse

The term “syllabic verse” is used to describe a poem in which the meter is based on counting syllables. The designation can be used no matter the number of stressed or unstressed feet.

Syllabic verse is not as common in English as it is in French, Finnish, Italian, Spanish, or other European languages. English-language poems are generally regarded as “stress-timed.” This means that the meter is based on the number of stressed or unstressed syllables. In English, readers are far more familiar with accentual verse or accentual-syllabic verse

Syllabic Verse Definition and Examples



Definition of Syllabic Verse

In syllabic verse, line length is dependent on how many syllables the words within the lines have. There is little to no regard paid to the number of stressed or unstressed syllables. Therefore, when analyzing syllabic verse, readers can count the number of syllables in total, unless the poem otherwise indicates, and base the pattern on that. 

Examples within the English language are rare, but below, readers can explore one exemplary English syllabic verse poem by Dylan Thomas. 

Examples of Syllabic Verse in Poetry 

In my Craft or Sullen Art by Dylan Thomas 

Within this poem, Thomas sought to translate syllabic verse, which is far more common in European languages like Italian and Spanish, to English. The poem was published in 1952 in the volume Collected Poems, 1934-1952. It details Thomas’ wishes for his own legacy within its twenty lines. The first few lines read: 

In my craft or sullen art

Exercised in the still night

When only the moon rages

And the lovers lie abed

With all their griefs in their arms,

Each line of this piece contains seven syllables. Thomas hinged the entire structure of the poem around this fact, refraining from considering the placement of the stresses. It is interesting to consider how this format differs from the traditional stress-timed pattern of most English-language poems. 

No Swan So Fine by Marianne Moore

Moore’s ‘No Swan So Fine’ is another example of an English syllabic verse poem. It, unlike the Thomas example above, is divided into stanzas. It demonstrates how the poet interpreted words and the number of syllables they have based on her chosen pattern. The first stanza reads: 

“No water so still as the

     dead fountains of Versailles.” No swan,

with swart blind look askance

and gondoliering legs, so fine

     as the chintz china one with fawn-

brown eyes and toothed gold

collar on to show whose bird it was.

The first stanza contains a variety of lines ranging from five to nine syllables. They follow a pattern of seven syllables in the first line, eight in the second, six in the third, and then eight, eight, five, and nine in the following lines. This pattern is repeated in the second stanza. 

This poem is a great example of how syllabic verse does not need to use the same number of syllables in every line. This is comparable to the ways that poets use different accentual verse patterns (like iambic pentameter and iambic trimeter) in most English poems. 

Explore more Marianne Moore poems.

Poem in October by Dylan Thomas 

Thomas’ ‘Poem in October’ is another example of an English poem that uses the same pattern of syllables throughout. The first lines read: 

It was my thirtieth year to heaven

Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood

   And the mussel pooled and the heron

           Priested shore

       The morning beckon

The first line contains ten syllables, the second: twelve, the third: nine, the fourth: three, and the fifth: five. The same pattern of syllables continues in each stanza. 

Discover more Dylan Thomas poems.

Considering the Snail by Thom Gunn 

‘Considering the Snail’ is one more example of an English poem structured according to the rules of syllabic verse. It is a short and simple poem that describes a snail’s “passion” and “fury” from a human perspective. The first four lines read: 

The snail pushes through a green

night, for the grass is heavy

with water and meets over

the bright path he makes, where rain

Despite the uneven visual, the lines all contain seven syllables. This continues throughout the first, second, and third stanzas. The poem ends with these lines: 

[…] I would never have

imagined the slow passion

to that deliberate progress.

Read more Thom Gunn poems

FAQs

What is an example of syllabic verse? 

Syllabic verse is most common in European languages (like Italian and French) but, there are some notable examples in English. For instance, Dylan Thomas’ ’In my Sullen Craft or Art’  in which the poet uses seven-syllable lines. 

What is the purpose of syllabic verse?

Syllabic verse refers to poetry that is structured around the number of syllables per line and mostly disregards the placement of stresses. It is unusual in English in that it does not, to the average reader, convey rhythm in the same way that stress-timed poetry does.

Are haiku examples of syllabic verse?

Haiku can be considered examples of syllabic verse. They depend on the number of syllables per line, as well as the number of lines overall. There are five syllables, total, in the first and third lines and seven in the second line. 

How do you write syllabic verses?

Composing syllabic verse in English is fairly simple. All you have to do is structure your poem to where there is the same number of syllables in each line. Or a repeating pattern of syllables. For example, the first and third lines of each stanza have five syllables, and the second and fourth have ten. 

How many syllables are in a free verse?

In free verse poems, there is no syllabic requirement. These poems can have long and short lines and do not need to conform to a specific rhyme scheme


Related Literary Terms

  • Sprung Rhythm: a rhythmic pattern used in poetry that mimics natural speech.
  • Anapest: two unstressed syllables followed by one stressed.
  • Iambic Pentameter: one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable. The most popular metrical pattern.
  • Dactyl: one stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables. It is the opposite of an anapest.
  • Spondee: an arrangement of two syllables in which both are stressed.
  • Free Verse: lines are unrhymed, and there are no consistent metrical patterns. But, that doesn’t mean it is entirely without structure.
  • Blank Verse: poetry that is written in unrhymed lines but with a regular metrical pattern.


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